A company’s relationship with the public is a critical part of their image and, as such, most companies today spend significant resources on maintaining a positive relationship with potential customers. Public Relations (PR) is the branch of a business that manages the release and exchange of information between the company and the general public, and it’s PR’s job to ensure the story that gets told is a positive one.
A company’s PR team is in charge of handling the company’s image in a way that’s different from advertising and marketing; PR distributes information about the company that’s available for free — unlike paid ads — and as such has a different effect on potential consumers. The public relations department’s goal is to interpret and predict public opinion of the company and to identify cases where company actions could positively or negatively affect this public opinion. They manage this through all kinds of outputs: news releases, interviews, press conferences and online content are all examples of tools a PR department can use to help influence public opinion.
The PR team is responsible for turning company actions into positive press. For example, imagine a company has plans to expand into a new facility. When releasing a press statement about it, the PR team would be sure to include facts such as how many jobs will be created by the project, how environmentally friendly the facility might be and the exciting new opportunities that this will add to the business.
This gives the local community positive things to think about the new facility, rather than (for example) being upset with construction delays. It’s a balance the PR team is designed to create.
Most PR teams consist of a collection of executive-level leaders who set policy and a hierarchy beneath to create and distribute content.
- Executives: The executive level is led by a Director, Chief Officer or Manager of Public Relations. In larger companies, there may be general or branch executive managers below this level. The executive level is responsible for the reputation of the brand, the overall public statements and/or targets and the strategic policies that will be executed within the department.
- Middle Management: There’s often a layer of middle management, whose responsibilities include individual areas of communication. They head departments like Internal Communications, Public Affairs or Public Information. This level is responsible for ensuring the output of their departments supports the strategies set in place by executives.
- Individual Contributors: These are the people who work to create content and programs that will communicate positive messages about the company to the general public. These roles include PR Analysts, Technical Writers, Social Media Specialists and other public relations goals. They craft the material that is used in conferences and releases.
It’s important that the entire department stays on the same page, because conflicting messages can do damage to public opinion. A unified effort is the best way to go about a public relations approach; there are different kinds of PR, but they all need to be able to represent the same executive message.
- Media Relations: A PR function relating to the press, this involves developing and maintaining relationships with reporters and other press individuals. This person focuses on getting press releases, interviews and other content out through media in a way that generates positive coverage for the company.
- Financial Relations: Anything involving communication or reporting of sensitive financial information goes through the PR team to make sure financial results are reported in a way that aligns with business strategy.
- Crisis Communication: In the case of an emergency the company is required to respond to, the PR team will be on top of releasing statements in a timely manner. These crises can be anything from a natural disaster to an internal scandal and must be handled very carefully to keep the company’s image positive.
- Community Outreach: Companies that work to give back to the logical communities that support them are seen in a positive light. This PR function helps get employees involved in local community functions. This can also be classified under Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR), which works to show the company as ethical, environmentally positive and beneficial to the surrounding community.
- Social Media: Companies are finding that engaging social media accounts can bring positive feedback and improve public opinion. The PR team carefully curates these accounts to make sure the message is positive and in line with the overall strategy.
The public relations team can’t work on its own. In fact, there’s a good amount of overlap between the PR department and other important departments in an organization.
The Public Relations, Marketing and Advertising departments have plenty of overlap, but each one has its own specific role. The marketing department decides the overall strategy for increasing customer base, including the brand or image the company wants to project. This is based on market analysis, the target audience for customers, upcoming project launches and the like.
The marketing department pulls all of this together, creates a strategy for marketing the company to consumers and then pulls in the PR and advertising departments so that they can both incorporate these strategies into their own goals.
PR is, of course, public information that’s shared for free via news outlets, press releases and online content. Advertising is the opposite: a message about the company and its goods and services that the company has paid to put somewhere. Advertisements usually appear in media streams not owned by the company: for example, television channels or online ads on websites. While advertising can be effective, it’s also something the company has paid for a consumer to see, and so often potential customers will scrutinize and question whether the advertisement means anything.
PR announcements are made through other channels (news, press, online) for free and are considered more trustworthy and reliable by many consumers. Thus it’s the responsibility of these three departments to ensure there’s a good balance of paid advertisement and positive PR content.
The public relations department also overlaps with Human Resources, in that both departments deal with personnel. PR and HR work together on a few critical functions. First, they’re responsible for internal communication of important information to employees; they’re the departments that curate the messages that go out to teammates about the company’s financial state, executive management decisions and social responsibility.
Together both departments craft internal statements to keep employees informed. Also, PR and HR overlap during the recruitment process. PR is responsible for managing public opinion related to the company, which includes ensuring the organization is an attractive option for skilled workers. HR then works with PR to identify target areas to recruit from, allowing the company a much better hiring pool.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, there’s no guarantee that all press will be positive. Bad press can happen on any scale, from an unfavorable review on a website to a major management scandal or a product recall. There are steps that can be taken to minimize the damage, but they need to be done quickly, and effectively, in order to save as much of the company’s positive image as possible.
First, determine the scale of the upset, and decide the scale of response. For a large company, one negative review on a website may just not be worth the effort of response — but it’s also an opportunity to showcase a personal response by solving this one customer’s issue, which can also help improve the company’s image. If the event is a major upset that’s going to require a major response, make sure that all resources can drop what they’re doing and focus on the major issue.
Consider the type of response as well: is the bad press based on a misunderstanding, or incorrect fact? This will require a different response structured to address the truth in a non-argumentative way. If the bad press is major and in fact true, it will require a much more complicated response to address.
Always be honest when responding to this kind of bad press. It’s important that the public see the company taking ownership of their issues and mistakes. Be upfront with an apology, if one is necessary, and don’t attempt to downplay anything or sweep it under the rug.
Unless it’s very clearly the work of another individual or organization, be sure the response doesn’t seem like the blame is being shifted away from the company; it’s best to focus on the portion that is the business’ responsibility. A straightforward apology statement can be released at a press conference or as an online response.
Additionally, be sure not to become angry, defensive or argumentative. If correcting some bad data, it’s important to come across as helpful and calm, to help the public image that this is an innocent mistake. When writing or delivering a statement, stay professional.
If any of this upset has occurred online, it’s important to keep communications business professional as well; don’t engage with angry commenters in the same spirit. A polite, respectful, apologetic response will remind the public that they’re dealing with a professional business who knows how to handle these situations.
It’s up to the PR team to decide how to craft their message to show a company willing to step up and take ownership for any errors while continuing to end on a positive note. A lot of this strategy will depend on the type of bad press and its scope. In some cases, a straightforward apology and a discussion on how to avoid the situation in the future will be enough substance to let people move on from the particular issue. In other cases, if there’s a lot of information to deal with, look for positive company actions that can be highlighted in other channels.
It’s also the PR department’s job to identify, early on, who needs to be informed, how communication will occur and how much information to share. Company shareholders, the board of directors and executive management: these critical people should be informed as soon as possible if there’s an incident. The company also needs to communicate internally to its employees; this should include a description of what happened, and an expectation of how the employees will respond if approached by the media, but should not include any critical information deemed to be confidential unless absolutely necessary.
An experienced PR team will be able to draw on their previous public relations work to incorporate positive public opinion into their response. Addressing the situation professionally is the best way to make a bad situation as tolerable as possible. Once the negativity subsides, be sure to give positive PR an extra push, so that attention turns back to the good things the company is doing moving forward.